Chick-Fil-A, the fast-food restaurant chain famous for its chicken sandwiches and for being closed on Sundays, is in the midst of a media firestorm over its CEO’s remarks about traditional marriage. The company seems to have gone from the frying pan into the fire in a matter of days.
A few observations about the communication implications:
CEOs need to learn to keep their mouths shut about hot-button issues not directly related to their businesses. The real head-scratcher for me is why Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy felt he needed to speak out about his personal support for traditional marriage (interpreted by most as anti-gay marriage). He made the remarks to a Christian news organization in the context of discussing how his beliefs influence how his family-owned company approaches business. But surely he had to anticipate the impact his remarks could have on the bottom line. CEOs – even those who take seriously their personal faiths – have an obligation to be good stewards of the companies they lead. That means not saying or doing things that put the company in a precarious financial position.
Corporate values are fine, but beware crossing over into personal values. Ever wonder why most company values include overused words like trust, respect for individuals and integrity? It’s because they are values everyone can agree on. Who doesn’t want to work for a company that’s committed to excellence or honest in its dealings? The problem is not with corporate values, it’s with the trickier personal values that some company leaders choose to communicate. Mr. Cathy is a devout evangelical Christian. He makes no bones about the fact that the personal values his faith has led him to espouse spill over into how he runs his company. (And, by the way, he can run his privately-held company however he wants to, guided by whatever personal values he wishes to follow.) But confusing the two is treacherous. Companies can impose and even enforce their corporate values on employees and customers (“this is how we do things around here”), but their leaders can’t and shouldn’t try to impose their personal values on stakeholders.
Social media add tremendous fuel to PR firestorms. Part of the reason the backlash toward Chick-Fil-A has been so strong and so fast is because the story has taken on a life of its own online. Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Social media is the great equalizer. It gives people who are otherwise relatively voiceless an enormous advantage in communicating with the public.” Not only do stories like this spread quickly online, but it can become nearly impossible to steer the conversation. So much information is shared so quickly with so many people, anything a company says in its defense is likely too little, too late.
We live in a hypersensitive, polarized, information-overloaded world in which public debates quickly reach a fever pitch. And companies need to understand that’s the public audience they’re dealing with these days. I don’t know if this I’m-good-you’re-evil mindset is a new phenomenon or if it’s always been there and is just now being exposed by social media, but it’s real. I’ve been watching discussions about the Chick-Fil-A story on discussion boards for communicators and among my friends on my Facebook feed. It’s amazing how quickly a civilized, grown-up discussion can deteriorate into name-calling and ostracizing. Anyone who happens to like a Chick-Fil-A sandwich is called a bigoted hater. Anyone who supports marriage equality for gay people is called an anti-family radical. This polarization and pent-up hostility is a force that communication professionals must reckon with. Ignore it at your peril.
Just as it was born in the free marketplace of ideas, this issue should be settled in the free economic marketplace. Given that Mr. Cathy has spoken his mind, and given that the debate rages on in the traditional and social media, the ultimate judge in this case should be consumers. Let those who are opposed to the CEO’s remarks boycott the restaurant. Let those who support him buy an extra sandwich or two. Let the Muppets find somewhere else to market their characters. Let the marketplace decide whether or not this fast-food chain will survive. But don’t let government intervene, as the mayors of Chicago and Boston would like. No laws have been broken – so far – and both sides are busy communicating to their constituencies. Let communication happen and let the public decide who wins.
Filed under: Crisis Communications, Executive Communication, Social Media | Tagged: CEO communication, Chick-Fil-A, Christian businesses, communication strategy, corporate values, crisis communication, Dan Cathy, gay rights, information overload, media firestorm, Muppets, Paul Root Wolpe, personal values, polarized debate, public debate, public relations, Social Media, traditional marriage |